In 1786 Mozart, hard at work on Le Nozze di Figaro,
took time off, without great enthusiasm, to write the music for a new
singspiel, Der Schauspieldirektor. The librettist was the same
who had provided the text for Die Entführung aus dem Serail,
Johann Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger, but this time the play was the
thing and Mozart’s music amounts to five pieces lasting, on their own,
little more than twenty minutes. Lack of enthusiasm for a project does
not seem to have acted as a block to Mozart’s inspiration – witness
the concertos for flute, an instrument he did not like – and these five
pieces, beginning with a well-worked out overture, have a good deal
more substance than the occasion strictly required.
Attempts have been made in the past to provide a minimum
narration to set the numbers in context (well, actually, in the mid-nineteenth
century someone tried to work it up as a full-scale opera with Mozart
himself among the characters); I daresay most people will be happy to
have just the music. The performance is a good one and the first recording
on original instruments. Listeners who are wary of these can be assured
that the Boston Baroque are beyond praise as regards tuning, nor do
they indulge in the exaggeratedly segmented phrasing some other period
groups go in for. In short, the pleasingly natural timbres of the instruments
can be enjoyed without any distractions, as can Pearlman’s vital but
not hard-driven interpretation.
The part for Madame Herz was intended for the same
singer as the Queen of the Night and calls for the same extended range.
Most of what Cyndia Sieden does is so splendidly confident as to raise
surprise – and the same comment applies to Sharon Baker too – when the
odd corner is awkwardly turned. Still, these moments are few, the small
male parts are well taken and in the last resort it is probably not
for this work that the disc will be bought.
In 1998-9 the Boston Baroque hit the world headlines
with the first modern performance and recording of The Philosopher’s
Stone, a singspiel emanating from the circle of Emanuel Schikaneder
(the librettist of The Magic Flute) which was not unknown to
scholars, but for which evidence had recently come to light suggesting
that its anonymous composers included Mozart himself. No such evidence
– "no smoking gun" as Pearlman’s readable notes put it – has
been found regarding The Beneficent Dervish, but evidence has
been found that it was performed in March 1791, just before the composition
of The Magic Flute, rather than a couple of years after Mozart’s
death as had been previously believed. This obviously increases our
curiosity, making us want to check it out for possible influences on
Mozart’s masterpiece. And of course, one never knows …
Oh, but surely one does. Immortal, sublime Mozart!
How could we be for a moment in doubt? Or could we? All those wonderful
pieces that people listen to with tears in their eyes, swooning at their
spirituality, are you going to tell me that the same people would yawn
their way through the very same pieces if you told them the composer
was Salieri or his ilk? Or if you played them Salieri but fobbed it
off as Mozart, the waterworks would be turned on again? Or can we not
recognise the composer in some more objective way? For example, we are
told that cows produce more milk when they listen to Bach, so presumably
pieces of questionable authenticity could be put to the milk-yield test
(has anyone tried, though?) …
Well, joking apart, premonitions of The Magic Flute
mostly centre around a slightly Sarastro-like figure. To my ears, while
a lot of the music is in the lingua franca of Mozart’s Vienna
and does sound as if it could have been by him (but not by late
Mozart, surely?) there are also fairly frequent turns of phrase which
are distinctly un-Mozartian. All the same, and bearing in mind that
there is far less music in this singspiel than in The Magic Flute,
and also a much less serious subject, the music is usually a good deal
more than merely workmanlike and is well worth hearing. I was particularly
struck by the use of the piano in the orchestra in the second act, especially
in the Slave Women’s chorus. Did Beethoven know this and get some ideas
for his Choral Fantasy?
Again, the performance is mostly excellent. Alan Ewing’s
voice is not quite rich enough in its lower notes for the Dervish (this
would have been a part for Gottlob Frick, or even Boris Christoff) but
his singing as such is good and everyone else is fine.
The notes are in English and German, as is the libretto;
the translator had a lot of fun with the chorus "Vino pani".
"First-rate grubbo" for "Prima vesi" and "Muckymuck
you" for "Farscha tu" surely leave the originals standing.
The Impresario is well worth knowing and the
Dervish is quite interesting enough to strengthen, rather than
the reverse, the claims of the present version to be the preferred one.